5am greeted us with a glorious sunrise, the promise of blue skies and a lovely day of fine weather ahead. We made the trip to the bus station, stopping to buy delicious poppyseed pastries and water along the way before settling in to our seats for the 90 minute journey. Neither Luci nor I had slept much the night before, so most of the ride was spent slumbering or watching the countryside whizz by in silence. I love early mornings, especially on days like this when the morning mists lie low over fields and rivers. Beautiful.
When we arrived, turning left off the main road under a red and white striped rail barrier into the car park, my first thought was how normal this all seemed. Having spent a lot of time in army barracks I could see a lot of similarities with places I’d spent as a kid, it didn’t seem fitting with the horror stories I’d heard and facts I had studied. Auschwitz is free to enter, but you must book in advance. Individuals can enter from 8am, or guided tours (which carry a fee) begin at 10. Entering Auschwitz is done without ceremony, bags are checked (Top tip: they must be smaller than a piece of A4 paper), you walk through a turnstile and then you’re in. There’s no map, no handout with information, you’re just there.
Pausing to take in the famous ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ (work will set you free) the first sign informed us that is is where the camp band stood, instructed to play to help prisoners keep time during the marches in and out of the camp. The marches back would see work parties carrying the bodies of those who hadn’t made it. All to a nice backdrop of music. How lovely. We were savouring the opportunity to meander at our own pace before the hoards of groups and tourists arrived in 2 hours. However, I think this was an error. For me it is the stories and facts which bring these places to life. It was not enough to read plaque after plaque of black and white facts which depicted what happened here, and it wasn’t until later when we tagged along on a tour or two when it really began to hit home.
The camp is made from individual two story brick blocks, each one used for a separate purpose. Some were accommodation for men, some women, some kept for those prisoners who had special duties, others for the hospital where women were sterilised and twins tested upon. These windows were blocked out even during the time the camp was active, to try and keep the horrors there secret. Being the first to arrive most of the doors were closed and it wasn’t until we saw cleaners going in and out that we realised that nowadays each one holds a different exhibition…one for each affected nationality, one displaying how the prisoners lived, how they existed; each one with rows and rows of photos lining the hallways. In the early years each inmate was photographed and categorised, that is, those who made it though the initial selection. It is estimated more than 80% of those who arrived here were sent instantly to the gas chambers. We saw one photograph of a woman and her 7 children, all tripping along to be gassed. What went though the minds of the people who stopped to take these photos? What on earth were they thinking?
The rooms which hit me particularly hard were those which showed videos of survivors telling stories about life before, during and after the holocaust. One lady spoke of an inspection in the ghetto, and the lengths she went to to make up her mother so she looked young and healthy and would not be viewed as someone unfit for work. There was an exhibition of children’s drawings found in the barracks, each one true to size and sketched onto a white wall…tucked into a windowsill, or hidden round a corner. This room was one of the worst for me, every child I know takes pleasure in drawing, it’s such a real thing, so normal, and yet these were children who must have been terrified. What had their parents told them? Was the drawing a way to distract from what was going on around them? It’s too awful to contemplate.
Just around the corner from here we entered the room holding the book of names, a massive list containing the name, date of birth, place of birth and place of death of each of the victims of the holocaust. The type was so small, and the exhibit so large, it really struck home exactly how many lives, families and communities were wiped out. A regime of terror doesn’t even seem to do it justice.
Auschwitz began as a concentration camp, meant for enemies to the Reich and prisoners of war, but it soon became a death camp. As Luci put it ‘this is basically what would happen if we started to farm humans’. The Nazis wasted nothing. Hair was shaved and woven into cloth, ashes used for fertiliser, gold teeth melted and each possession categorised and most sold. There are rooms containing just pots and ceramics, the prized possessions people could not leave behind, another dedicated to the shaving brushes, toothbrushes and hair brushes, one just to shoes. So many hundreds of shoes…mainly brown, but the odd red sandal, blue heel, or black boot. The display was beyond comprehension, a long corridor with great mounds of shoes behind glass on either side…yet this was just 5% of the collection. Five percent.
The majority of the gas chambers were destroyed in the days before liberation, so there’s not much left in the way of evidence, but what is there is enough to chill your blood. We entered a concrete room, with scratched walls, adjacent to one which housed a number of giant furnaces. This was the first gas chamber, where they experimented with the chemicals and formulas to get the most efficient dose. It was nothing compared to the one we saw in model form, which could hold up to 2000 people at any one time. The completely crazy thing is that these people (at the start at least) believed they were safe. They believed they were being relocated, rehoused, and that this was part of the process. A shower and medical inspection to check they were healthy. Although even by the firing wall there were bathrooms where prisoners were forced to strip before being taken outside. Everything was so efficient, so calculated. So cold.
A free shuttle bus takes you from Auschwitz 1 to Auschwitz 2, where over 200,000 people would have lived at any one time. Each and every building was constructed by the prisoners themselves, and in fact construction in the camp ceased only one month before the liberation.
Imagining how cold, dirty and rat infested these places must have been it is impossible to imagine how people survived. The fact that there are drawings on the walls…these people must have had an incredible spirit and willpower to go on. Each extra day of life was a mini revolution against those who wanted them dead.
Halfway up the tracks an abandoned carriage offers some context to the conditions most people arrived here in, with each carriage apparently holding up to 70 people. The first stage of selection was to segregate the men from the women and children, before they were then split into those who could work, and those who could not. The latter…anyone elderly or infirm, anyone young or mothers with young children, were sent away instantly, the others were sent to be registered…their belongings taken and a number tattooed on their bodies.
On liberation day it is said the guards disappeared by 11am, but none of the prisoners moved. Would you? When you had seen so many shot and killed? Perhaps this was another trick. It wasn’t until 3pm, when the first Americans and Red Army soldiers arrived that they allowed themselves to believe it was over. We saw photos of survivors who weighed around 25kilos when liberated. Those too weak to make the march to freedom.
I’m glad I came, that I can now at least comprehend the size and brutality of this place. It was so cold, even on a sunny day in spring, with heaters on…what must it have been like in midwinter? How bleak. I would like to come back again and visit with a guide who could offer more context to the exhibits and stories behind the photos and faces we saw.
Even after the bus journey home we were in need of quiet contemplation time that evening, before our night train to Budapest. We decided to visit the Jewish quarter, and soon found ourselves in a funky bar enjoying a vodka (or two…ok, maybe four).
The incredible stories of survival, revolution and strength I have seen and read today will stay with me for a long long time to come. So to each and every one who died, lived, lost or remembers…I say nastrovia. Bottoms up.